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What do you do on a wet day in Husavik? Well, you could spend it in the Phallological Museum (over 180 dried and pickled penises).
And just in case you're really tempted, a fellow-traveller who did, implied that I hadn’t missed much. And no, none of them are human.
What you really do on a wet day in Husavik is walk, eat, learn all about whales and whaling and then go to church.
This will leave you just enough time to check out the 'souvenir' shop – general supplies downstairs, good selection of books, music and knitwear as well as the usual trash on the ground floor – and make it back to the petrol station in time for the bus back to Akureyrie.
So where is Husavik and just how 'wet' is a wet day?
It's a small, but pretty whaling town on the north coast.
It's believed to be the first Nordic settlement on the island after the Swede Gardar Svavarsson washed up here in A.D. 850 (or 860 or 870 depending upon your source). Claiming the island for himself, he created a small settlement, called it Husavik ("the bay of houses") and dug in for the winter. When the weather improved he set off to continue his search for the mythical Thule but left some of his servants behind (or abandoned a few slaves, again depending upon which version of the story you read). Whoever they were they must have thrived and prospered, or at least survived and suffered, long enough for the settlement to become permanently established.
If you're driving you'll find it on Route 85 (follow Route 1 eastwards from Akureyrie until you reach Rte 85; or if heading north from Myvatn take Rte 87, which joins the 85 just west of the town.)
Alternatively, there is a service bus from Akureyrie a couple of times a day at Kr2,800 each way. Tickets are available from the Tourist Information office (don't ask at the bus station, they get a bit tired of it!). You might want to book ahead, or at least turn up early to be sure of getting on the bus…ours was only a 12-seater on the outward trip. Conversations with the bus company suggest that they decide what size bus to put on depending upon likely numbers of passengers. We were somewhat relieved to see a full-size coach draw up at 5.30 for our return trip.
Is it wet? Well, the Icelanders kept telling me they don't get that much rain. Snow in the winter, yes, but rain in the summer? Not usually. Not like this. I'll take their word for it, but the fact is there is nothing much between Husavik and the Arctic circle, so when the wind blows in, it does so across the Arctic Ocean and brings a deal of weather with it. When it's wet… it is very wet. Surprisingly though, it's not as cold as you might expect despite the strong wind off the sea and the northern latitude.
Turn left just by the Phallological Museum, up the incline and turn right onto the road. Pass the gnome garden, keep going until the road runs out, take to the grass to pass a factory yard and then basically follow the cliff path, descending at intervals to the beach, crossing streams on rickety logs and driftwood bridges, until you reach one you can't cross without wading.
Of course, if you're happy to wade (and on some days I might be) then you can just carry on. On this occasion the three of us voted unanimously: No. We were an hour and half out of town, making for a three-hour round. In this weather, that felt like a decent enough ramble. The rain was not exactly constant. Occasionally, it eased off to a drizzle fine enough to tempt you to lower your hood – only to then throw a tantrum at your audacity and return in force.
the cliffs the view was grey: sea fading into mist into sky. The waves seemed tame, so presumably it was the visibility rather than the waters that kept the whale watchers in harbour today.
The beach is a dark volcanic sand, degenerating to quicksand in places indistinguishable from firmer ground as we discovered when going down to shake hands with the Ocean. At only 35 miles from the Arctic Circle, the water was surprisingly warm.
Alarm-calling Oystercatchers accompanied us, swooping about the cliff edge presumably luring us away from their nests. Terns wandered about on the beach. The ubiquitous gulls screamed in traditional fashion, and mobbed the ravens on the headland crags.
The horses kept close together and their heads down.
If you're in need of getting back to town quickly, you can cut across the headland on a track shortening the walk by a mile or so but it struck us as being too boring an alternative. Looking out to sea through the rain is, after all, a traditional British summer pastime, so we simply about-faced and wandered back the way we'd come.
When it comes to walking and just generally going to the seaside, I'm a picnic kind of girl. At a stretch I'll buy fish and chips to eat with my fingers while sitting on the sea wall. You'll have gathered that this wasn't a picnic kind of a day. More a warm bar, cold beer, hot soup kind of a day, which is how we ended up in Gamli Baukur.
Gamli Baukur might sound like one of Tolkien's dwarfs but it's actually a lovely little bar-cum-restaurant right on the harbour. The terrace was obviously deserted but the interior, all polished pine (driftwood they'll have you believe) and small interconnected rooms (2 on the ground floor and an upper storey that I didn't explore), was a haven from the weather. Sometimes one's own language doesn't quite work. Gemütlich was the word that came to mind.
Although the place was busy, there still seemed to be a large number of staff doing not very much, or at least doing it very slowly ~ but on a wet afternoon in Husavik, they might be forgiven for thinking, "what's to hurry for"?
Certainly I was happy for a delay between getting a table and any hope of a menu appearing, which gave me a chance to wander off to the ladies and exchange my wring-em-out-sodden-walk-pants, for some nice dry Sprayways.
The menu looked long and varied enough, but we'd come in wanting soup so we didn't look much further than that. The beer menu was also long and varied, but actually most of it wasn't available, and when it was it took the staff some long while to locate it. I had the uncharitable impression that perhaps they buy on demand by phoning the local Budvinn when they get an order and wait for the delivery.
The soup, on the other hand, was forthcoming as ordered without delay and didn't generate any complaints…although I might have got the best deal (even if I wasn't offered any bread whereas the other two were).
Soup of the day (broccoli) was bubbling away in a large tureen in the corner and was served on a help-yourself as many times as you like basis. It was pronounced 'fine', but two shallow bowlfuls appeared to suffice.
Ordered of the menu the "traditional Icelandic meat soup" came in a more substantial helping and was declared "mostly vegetables – but very tasty".
I went for the "Cream of Fish Soup Gamli Baukur" – seriously substantial chunks of cod and other white fish, with the occasional lost prawn, in a delicious creamy, fishy, base. More of a stew than a soup, it was just what the doctor ordered. Splendid. Add a hunk of bread and it would have made a full-scale meal. Recommended.
Whales and Whaling
Sated, warm and dry, it was very tempting to stay put – but no: it was time to head back out into the rain and see at least a little of what the town itself had to offer. My first stop had to be the Whale Museum, just across the yard.
The town survives these days largely on tourism and whale-watching trips running from the harbour are successful because they've got a fairly high strike rate. Obviously, though the time was when the hunt for the whale was nowhere near so benevolent as offering a few southerners the chance to wield a camera.
This was a whaling town and it's highly appropriate that the award-winning museum devoted to the cetaceans and their habitat should be housed in an old slaughter-house. This space was acquired after an initial three year trial proved that people were interested enough to pay to be educated about the animals they'd come all this way to watch. Indeed, even if they weren't going to get out on a boat, the fascination with the leviathans of the deep is such that this old abattoir is one of the most visited places in the north of the island.
It isn't actually the most technologically advanced museum in the world, relying heavily on the written word, and pictures, and real world artefacts. Then again, that's exactly what I personally want from a museum. I want to see the stuff and be able to read what it is and what its significance is. I'm happy enough to watch the odd video, but I really don't need to interact.
And when you have ten whale skeletons of different species hanging there in front of you…
… if you've any respect, you will be awestruck.
We know these creatures are big and dive deep and are just generally amazing, but unless you've been lucky enough to see them in the wild (and I haven't) then coming this close is pretty special.
Did I learn anything?
Well, the first thing was just how many species there are. Of course, you just need to Google and Wiki to find out, but I'd never bothered and never really thought about it. Over 40 – and that's just whales (i.e. not counting dolphins and other cetaceans). All different, all needing something slightly different and behaving slightly or fundamentally differently from their fellows.
Then there was how they got from living whale to these clean skeletons hanging in front of me. Just to confirm: none of the whales were killed deliberately. All were found stranded or accidentally drowned in fishing nets. All but one are from around Iceland's shores. Once the creature has got to its destination it's butchered. The locals are none too keen on this happening these days, being swift to comment on the stench – a stench that would have kept their ancestors in the money. Whale meat is still a valuable commodity, and is available in many Icelandic restaurants if you don't have any moral objections to eating it. Then the remains are buried for two years either in the ground or preferably in horse dung – which assists in cleaning the bones. Eventually the remains are exhumed subjected to a final chemical cleaning and 're-strung' for us all to admire.
Then there is the Bowhead. We might think of many cetaceans as being friendly smiley critters, but the Bowhead has been proven to have genuine facial expressions, which have specific meaning.
In the section on whaling techniques from the past, I was surprised to discover just how small a whaling spear is. Dating from the days before explosive harpoons, these weapons make their successor seem almost humane.
Pictures of Husavik in General
The spear (or javelin – it would be as oft thrown as stabbed in from close range) is tiny. A little over a foot in length, it is a barbed piece of iron which would be thrown, jabbed or shot into the animal, who was then allowed to carry on his merry way. The principal was that your whaler basically waited for his prey to die of blood poisoning and just hope that it washed up on a friendly shore. The arrows were marked – and that was what entitled you to the lion's share of the kill. If the spear wasn't found, it was a free-for-all. The Icelandic for a stranded whale is roughly equivalent to a "bonanza"… it's a gift from the gods. In small communities a dead whale was meat and wealth.
Did you know that most whales live in the wild for somewhere between 40 and 80 years? And that some are known to survive as long as 200 years?
Or that in captivity the average life span is 5 years?
I remember being intrigued by many more snippets about how the oceans work, and what we're doing to them, but these are the things that stayed with me.
The museum has a small shop selling general Icelandic and whale-y souvenirs, but it is really missing a trick in not having its own guidebook. For only 1600 sq m of space over two floors you could argue it doesn't need one – but I actively sought one out for all of that information I knew I wasn't going to retain.
Going to Church
Obviously you can't come to a harbour town and not mooch around the harbour itself for a little while, can you? Erm, actually, well, let's just say it was on this occasion a VERY LITTLE while. It was still wet, still grey, nothing was coming or going, the Knörrin and the Bjössi Sör just sat there waiting for better weather. Others like them tied up and going nowhere, testament to a tourist trade that is weather dependent. In the days when this harbour really worked, today would not have kept anyone at home.
But me, I'm not a glutton for punishment either, so looking for my next port of call out of the rain, I went to church.
It's a particularly pretty little church. Designed by state architect, Rognvaldur Olafsson, it's built of Norwegian wood was consecrated on 2nd June 1907. It is actually cruciform, but with the 26 metre tower filling in one of the empty quarters this isn't immediately evident. It's claim to fame as being unique in Iceland rests on the fact that it doesn't have a pulpit, merely a lectern by the altar rail. The interior decoration is largely down to artist Freymodur Johannesson who finished his work in 1924 – it's a simple scheme of blue ceiling, white walls, with decorated panels at clerestory level. Cushioned pews provide seating at ground and balcony levels.
Two other pieces of artwork stand out, f you'll forgive me for treating a sacred space like an art gallery. Sveinn Thorarinsson's depiction of the resurrection of Lazarus dominates the altar, not least because the action has been transposed to a very Icelandic landscape, whilst local sculptor Johann Bjornsson's baptismal font provides a very modern rendition of 'suffer the little children'.
And that was about it for my time on the Arctic coast on this occasion. Wandering back towards the petrol station for the bus, I stopped off to look at the books, unforgivably decide I could probably source them cheaper at home and save on the excess baggage charge, but did treat myself to a woolly hat and admire the fact that the Icelanders had been quick to get out a T-shirt with the phonetic rendition of "that" volcano, with the motto "It's not that hard to pronounce".
Do I recommend a wet day in Husavik? Actually yes, I do.
But I still hope it's dry next time I go – and that maybe I'll be able to get on one of those boats and see a free-swimming whale for myself.